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The Stanford Political Science Experiment


Admittedly, the allusion in my title oversells the story a bit, but this isn’t good.

It seems to me there are two issues here worth disentangling.

1) Is it ethical for researchers to interact with voters in a way that might change the outcome of an election (but with no intent to do so, and no partisan valence)?

2) Is it ethical for for researchers to do (1) while misrepresenting themselves as agents of the state?

I’m inclined to answer the first question with a ‘no’ but am willing to listen to arguments to the contrary. An anonymous political scientist in the TPM piece makes the case for a yes answer:

“I would say, just looking at the country at large, is the great threat to the integrity of our process good social science or is it the Koch brothers?” the source, who was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly, said. “You’ve got to be courageous about this. We need to know how to improve our politics and how to renovate it. We can’t just be playing Mickey Mouse games in the classrooms. We’ve got to be out there in the political world trying stuff.”

The Koch brothers thing is risible misdirection; whatever one thinks of the Koch brothers political activity in a post-Citizens United world, this is an entirely separate issue. The implied argument here is that the current trend in cutting edge political science research to eschew observational studies in favor of ‘experiments’ is, inevitably going to lead to manipulation of actual political events if it’s going to be done well. There’s some truth to this; ‘experiments’ conducted in artificial scenarios with a bunch of undergraduate volunteers will lead us to replicate the WEIRD problem in a good deal of psychological research (and only answer a very limited number of kinds of research questions). ┬áThat said, as someone with no professional attachment (and a skeptical attitude toward) to the experiments trend, my inclination is to say ‘so much the worse for experiments’; as with all social science methodologies it has real limits, in this case ethical ones, that need to be acknowledged. But I suppose it’s possible that there’s a conversation worth having about minor, random influence as potentially acceptable in some circumstances.

As for (2), though, I don’t see how there can be any debate at all. I can’t imagine what they were thinking if this was their intention (and it’s hard to account for their use of the state seal in the mailing in any other way). I would guess it was an effort to get more people to take their flyer seriously, but I can’t fathom what would cause someone to think that misrepresentation is in any way ethical.


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